Tag Archives: Bechdel

Beauty in the Movies: Party Girl

The past few films I’ve featured have been naturalistic, English, and decidedly rural, so this week I thought it would be fun to swing in the opposite direction and highlight an indie classic set in ’90s Manhattan—Party Girl.

Mary (Parker Posey) makes a living throwing wild parties (or what in the ’90s we called “raves”), unfortunately she always forgets to obtain a liquor license. When her unorthodox profession finally lands her in jail, she looks to her godmother Judy (Sasha von Scherler) to bail her out. Judy is a librarian who makes a habit of reminding Mary she’s just like her mother who was “a woman with no common sense”. In order to prove Judy wrong, and avoid eviction, Mary takes a position as a library clerk and finds she might have a surprise talent for the job.

While Mary is in the midst of starting a new career she finds herself infatuated with Mustafa, (Omar Townsend) the hunky, Lebanese, proprietor of a street falafel cart. Unfortunately Mary’s self-centeredness is a big obstacle in the way of her happiness in every aspect of her life, especially where romance is concerned. Mustafa introduces Mary to the myth of Sisyphus which parallels Mary’s own struggle and is made reference to in many different ways throughout the film—like a guy who always seems to be carrying a box up the stairs.

There are a bunch of great secondary characters like Mary’s flamboyant friend Derrick (Anthony DeSando), who has one of the most lovely Jersey accents ever, Liev Schreiber as her cockney jerk of an ex-boyfriend, and her roommate aspiring DJ, Leo (Guillermo Díaz). Really though, this is Parker Posey’s movie. She is so charmingly obnoxious and straight-up weird that you can’t take your eyes off her, not to mention her outfits. Colored tights and shorts are all over the place at the moment and I like to think it all started right here.

Party Girl is from the era where an “indie” film actually meant it was independently funded rather than just a label to acknowledge it was somewhat outside the mainstream or quirky. According to IMDB.com this film was made for $150,000 dollars which seems totally insane by today’s standards. I mean, I know, inflation and all that but still, wow, that’s really cheap for a movie. Consider that “independent”  films of the last few years like 500 days of Summer or Little Miss Sunshine were both made for around $8 million—which is still super cheap by Hollywood standards.

The editing and music in Party Girl are sort of strange (the music really sounds like a made-for-ABC-family movie at times). You get the feeling a lot of the costumes and set decorations were thrown together from what people had on hand or could acquire with a meager budget. These things make the film so much more interesting though. It feels unique, it feels like New York, and it captures the feeling of a specific moment in the 1990s.

Figuring out what you want to do with your life is a huge decision, and so often in movies everyone already seems to have that worked out, especially in films for women. “Chick-flicks” or romantic comedies always seem to feature ladies with perfect careers who are just trying to find the right guy. As most of us know, finding the perfect career can be much more of a struggle. While I’m pretty confident most women could get along just fine without a guy, the same can’t be said for a job—we all need one of those (unless you have a trust fund or a wealthy spouse or something).

This movie is a cult classic because it gets funnier the more you watch it and the clothes and style are still appealing over 15 years later. In a way Party Girl is a coming-of-age story, at 24 Mary doesn’t know how to be a grown-up mostly because she has no idea what she wants to do. She keeps screwing everything up, and the boulder rolls back down the hill on top of her over and over again. It isn’t until she embraces what she actually likes doing, despite its lack of glamour, that she finds fulfillment. Party Girl also teaches us the important lesson that librarians can be hot and fashionable—you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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Beauty in the Movies: Sense and Sensibility

A few weeks ago I featured the film Clueless an update of Jane Austen’s Emma, only to realize that I’ve never featured a direct adaptation of an Austen novel into film. So this week I feature Ang Lee’s beautiful Sense and Sensibility which may not be as true to the novel as some Austen fans would like, but no doubt makes up for it with stunning visuals and amazing acting.

As Mr. Dashwood passes away, his last request is that his only son, John, will promise to take care of his step-mother and sisters who will inherit virtually nothing due to England’s Primogeniture laws which stipulate that land is passed down to only male heirs. Unfortunately, John’s greedy wife Fanny convinces him his sisters will do perfectly fine on their own. As a result Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her three daughters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet), and Margaret (Emilie François) become strangers in their own home and must seek a new place to live.

Fanny’s brother Edward comes to visit while the Dashwoods prepare to abandon their home. Edward is nothing like his shallow, cruel sister and soon he and Elinor form a close friendship. Fanny, or course, disapproves and fearing the friendship will blossom into love makes sure Edward leaves before any such thing can happen. When Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers the women a cottage on his estate they are finally out of danger. Like most Austen, there are way to many characters and way too many plot twists to cover any more of the plot here, you’ll just have to check it out yourself, it’s worth it.

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel, in 1811, and was written under the pseudonym of “A Lady”. She was just 19 when she began what would become her first full length work, and some believe it is partially based on her relationship with her own sister Cassandra. While Elinor represents “sense” or a restrained and courteous disposition, Marianne’s character is representative of “sensibility” what we today would think of as sensitivity, or an overly emotional personality.

Both sister’s traits have their positive and negative aspects, but it does seem that Elinor’s restraint and patience win out while Marianne’s impulsive, sometimes inappropriate, behavior results in heartbreak and distress. Many Austen Biographers have argued over which of the two traits Austen saw as superior, or if she was ever sure of that answer herself. It is generally believed that Austen saw herself as free-spirited Marianne, and her sister as the more practical Elinor whom she looked up to greatly.

During this period in history, as well as many others, a woman’s search for a husband wasn’t what we think of it as today, it was an essential part of life. A woman being a spinster wasn’t awful because it meant she would be sad and lonely, but because she would be poor and most likely spend the rest of her life living off her relation’s generosity. Austen’s novels, though they deal heavily in romance, are also about the struggle to persevere.

If you were a woman born into the middle or upper classes you couldn’t simply go out and get a job, you had no options. The bechdel test fails in Austen, and in other places too, because the need for a husband was so much more than simply romance, it was in many ways a woman’s only hope and therefore a major part of the conversation among women at the time.

To think Austen reveled in the predicament women were in during her time is to completely miss the point, her characters are often in complete turmoil over their own fate, and Emma Thompson does a wonderful job of highlighting this aspect of female life in her adaptation (and in her performance as well). No one could read the novel, or watch the film, and believe that Elinor wouldn’t choose to go out and support her family if she could, but she is utterly repressed by the futility of her position.

Ang Lee’s naturalistic scenery, Jenny Beavan’s gorgeous costumes, and Emma Thompson’s insightful, funny, writing make this adaptation standout from others. There may be few of Jane Austen’s original words in the script, but the spirit of her characters and the cleverness of her storytelling are unmistakable and charming as ever.

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Beauty in the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

This week for Beauty in the Movies we’re heading back to the New York of 1985 for the cult classic Desperately Seeking Susan, where the streets are full of characters and you just can’t wear enough jewelry or sequins.

Desperately Seeking Susan brings us into the life of Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), a young housewives living in Fort Lee New Jersey with her neglectful, hot-tub selling husband Gary (Mark Blum). Suffering from the boredom of everyday life, Roberta finds herself obsessing over a string of personal ads in which a man, Jim (Robert Joy), is “desperately seeking” his girlfriend Susan (Madonna) in cities all over the country. When an ad pops up requesting a meeting in Battery Park, Roberta just can’t resist driving over to Manhattan to see the couple in the flesh. After witnessing the musician and his lady reunite, Roberta follows the enigmatic woman to a thrift store where she watches her trade her trademark pyramid jacket for a pair of bedazzled boots. Wanting to understand and be more like Susan, Roberta buys the jacket and rushes home to New Jersey to make dinner for her clueless husband.

That night she finds a port authority locker key in the pocket of Susan’s jacket and decides to pen her own personal ad seeking Susan in order to return the key and unlock the mystery of the woman. Unfortunately for Roberta, Susan is also being sought by a creepy guy who knows only that she unwittingly stole a pair of priceless Egyptian earrings and that she wears a gold jacket with a pyramid on the back. Uh-oh, because now Roberta is wearing that same jacket and the creepy guy is following her instead. Meanwhile Susan’s guy Jim has sent his buddy Dez (Aidan Quinn) to Battery Park to see who put the ad in the paper for Susan and check to make sure she’s alright. While Susan gets hauled away by the cops for skipping out on cab fare, Roberta is pursued by the creepy guy and subsequently falls and hits her head only to be rescued by Dez who also believes her to be Susan. She awakes to find she has lost her memory, and now Roberta believes she is Susan as well. Phew, that’s only the first half hour, from there the film weaves a path of mistaken identity and fabulous 1980’s fashion, if that’s not enough for you, there’s also this moment:

Pensive Aidan Quinn + hammock + cat = magic

When this film first went into production Madonna wasn’t Madonna yet, but by the time it wrapped they needed security to keep her growing fan base at bay during filming. Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t show that Madonna is a great actress, in fact it probably proves the contrary, but she works well because she has a magnetism and style that invite attention. Roberta is drawn to Susan in the same way Madonna’s teenaged fans were drawn to her at the time. It’s as if the film foreshadowed the Madonna explosion, you would think it was written to emphasize the allure of the budding pop star, but it was nothing more than a happy accident. Goldie Hawn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ellen Barkin were all considered for the role of Susan. While I’m sure they each would have brought more depth to the role, it wouldn’t matter, because the only thing Susan needs to be is interesting, she doesn’t need to be likable or sympathetic—but she damn well needs to have style.

Desperately Seeking Susan was written by a woman, directed by a woman, and produced by women as well, so while it can be silly at times, it sidesteps the typical romantic comedy formula and delivers something decidedly different. In truth this film is really a love story between Roberta and Susan, not physically, but emotionally. Roberta is completely enthralled by Susan’s freedom and sense of self, and in her search for her own identity she falls in love with Susan’s, and even gets to live out the fantasy of being that identity before finally embracing her own.

There is something Alice and Wonderland-like about this film, Roberta being Alice and Susan the white rabbit she follows into a new world. Her life in New Jersey is seemingly perfect, but she’s miserable. When Roberta enters the somewhat mad world of Susan on the exciting but frightening streets of New York she finds an entirely new self. At first she needs to believe she is Susan in order to allow herself to change, but even when she regains her memory, she is no longer the suburban housewife she was, but someone new. This film is very much about duality and identity, who we are and who we want to be and why we should allow ourselves to explore both those ideas, because often they don’t line-up as perfectly as one would expect.

Sure, this film has its share of silly moments, but the great clothes and music, the strange background characters, and the somewhat goofy plot all add to the charm. Behind all the style, there is actually a very poignant message that was pretty rare for films about women at the time; be yourself, whoever that is. No matter what everyone else is telling you to be, you’re the one who decides who you are. In the ’80s women were taught they could have it all, but if you’re trying to be everything, you’ll probably lose yourself in the process. What’s really important to remember is that being who you are shouldn’t take any effort, and if it does, maybe it’s time to see what it would feel like to be someone else, you might even discover you’re not who you thought you were at all.

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Beauty in the Movies: Mystic Pizza

I’d planned to feature this movie three weeks ago when it would have been more seasonally apropos, but sometimes Netflix disks malfunction and you just have to deal with it. It’s technically still Fall though, so I ask you to hold off on your holiday mood for a moment (I promise a more seasonally appropriate film next week, barring any Netflix complications) while you celebrate the last of the fallen leaves with a 1980s classic, Mystic Pizza.

Mystic Pizza is one of the few coming of age stories about women, and despite being a “chick flick” (god I’m sick of that label) it doesn’t follow the typical formula. Although many critics falsely state that Mystic Pizza is about three high school girls, or three girls who’ve just graduated from high school, it actually takes place during that limbo period after high school, in your late teens and early twenties, where you’re trying to figure out your place in the world as an adult.


The story centers on three women in the port town of Mystic Connecticut where they work at a pizza parlor known for it’s mysteriously delicious sauce and owned by mother figure Leona (Conchata Ferrell). Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts) is a free spirit, she is sexy and sassy and looking for a way out of Mystic, any way she can. Her younger sister Kat (Annabeth Gish) is slinging pizzas to save money for tuition at Yale, where she has recently been accepted. Kat is bookish and lacks the big hair and chunky jewelry of her peers—that’s how you know she’s smart. She also likes astronomy and wears pleated pants. Jojo Barboza (Lili Taylor), is practically a third sister, and just as confused about her future as Daisy, especially after fainting at her wedding, much to the surprise of her fiancée (Vincent D’Onofrio).

The three girls, and most of the town, are Portuguese, which plays largely into the story. During the off-season Mystic is blissfully free of the wealthy folks who “summer” in the quaint seaside town. So when Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. (Adam Storke) shows up at a local bar having been exiled to his parents beach house after getting kicked out of law school, Daisy can’t help but take notice. The two then embark on a whirlwind romance, despite the hindrance of their economic and class differences. The relationship is a far more convincing portrayal of cross-class love than has been explored in other films (ahem, Pretty in Pink, ahem).

At the same time, Kat finds herself in a seemingly doomed relationship of her own. In an effort to score more tuition money she takes a babysitting job watching the child of Yale-educated, ginger-haired architect Tim Travers (William R. Moses). From the minute he steps on-screen you know this pairing is a bad idea, but Kat is naive enough to think a babysitter-employer romance can turn out well.  Although it’s a clichéd situation, it is acted with such conviction by Gish that your heart goes out to her. After all, the reason clichés exist is because they happen often in real life. Everyone likes to think they’re the exception, but rarely is it true. It’s an incredibly common disappointment which requires a willing blindness that so many of us have been guilty of—but it’s learning from our mistakes and experiences which signifies a coming-of-age.

Unlike the others, Jojo and her fisherman fiancée Bill’s relationship, is a cliché turned on its head. Jojo loves Bill but would rather have sex than talk about marriage. When Bill renames his boat “nympho” after her, Jojo screams at him from the dock “you can’t force me to do something I’m not ready to do…and until I am, if I am, the answer is NO!”. It’s an empowering moment, and one that should be equally noted by men who are hesitant to walk down the aisle. Forcing anyone to get married is a bad idea, and if it comes to that, it’s probably best that both parties step back and think about what they’re willing to compromise for the happiness of the person they love, sometimes it’s worth the compromise, and sometimes it’s not—yet another major life lesson thrown into this atypical “chick flick”.

Based on the reviews on IMDB (an fascinating way to see how differently people see the world) a lot of men seem utterly confused by Jojo’s character, as if the idea of a woman who didn’t want to get married but wanted to have sex was entirely fictional. What that says to me is that some men really don’t know women at all, maybe that’s why we keep getting the same tired “chick flicks”. It’s also pretty enlightened that, despite being called a nympho by her fiancée, Jojo isn’t slut-shamed, or made into a caricature of a sex-crazed women (à la Samantha in SATC).

I have to point out Matt Damon’s brief film debut in which he plays a preppy rich kid by the name of “steamer” whose only line is “mom, do you want my green stuff?”. When Roger Ebert reviewed this film in 1988, he said “I have a feeling that “Mystic Pizza” may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars”. I don’t think he was talking about Matt Damon, but Ebert was correct in predicting a lot of big talent would get its start in this film. Obviously Julia Roberts, but also Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio and even the lesser known Gish (who has continued to work steadily) got their first leading roles in this film.

While Mystic Pizza might not be the most unpredictable or solidly written film, it has endured because of its honesty, which at times may seem saccharine (youth is often sweet as well as sour though isn’t it?). For a lighthearted romantic film, it deals with some big issues; racism, classism, sex, friendship, and figuring out who you are and who you want to be with. If the acting weren’t so earnest, if the clichés weren’t present, the story wouldn’t ring as true, because the most charming part of the film is its smallness. It sucks that when this movie is mentioned it’s emphasized that the characters are blue-collar, hard workers, blah, blah, blah, because what does that say about most films out there? Everyone is inexplicably rich, and how they came to be that way is casually thrown aside (especially in the “chick flick” genre). It’s sad that we don’t see more films about people like the rest of us, because there are just as many interesting stories to be told about everyday people living and working through their “little” lives.

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Beauty in the Movies: Princess Caraboo

Part of the reason I started Beauty in the Movies was to bring unknown or under-appreciated films to the attention of you readers out there, so today I’m featuring a lesser known movie which I hadn’t watched in years, but was happy to revisit.

Based on a true story, Princess Caraboo is spun on the question of “is she or isn’t she?”, so I will do my best not to give anything away while I impart a brief idea of the story to you. In early 19th century England, a girl (Phoebe Cates) is picked up and brought into the magistrate for committing the crime of begging. It was a common occurrence for the time, but this girl wasn’t like anything the inhabitants of the village of Almondsbury had ever seen before. She wore a turban and strange clothes, and she spoke an unrecognizable foreign language. When she is put before the magistrates, one of her fellow prisoners comes forward and states he can understand her language, he then tells the court her father is a king. At the plea of a local aristocrat’s wife, Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes), the magistrate gives the girl into the care of the woman and her husband (Jim Broadbent). The Worall’s Greek manservant Frixos (Kevin Kline) believes she is a fraud, but her captivating presence seems to enchant everyone she encounters, including a journalist (Stephen Rea) who is determined to confirm or expose her amazing story one way or another. One thing is for sure, the question of the girl’s true identity will keep you watching until the end.

This was the last film Phoebe Cates made before she retired from acting in 1994  (although she did come back for the 2001 film The Anniversary Party). Cates avoided the path of the typical starlet and chose to raise her family and leave the industry, judging by her 20+ year marriage to Kevin Kline (quite an anomaly for Hollywood) it’s a decision she appears happy with. While it was a loss for the film industry, having appeared in some much-loved films (Gremlins, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Cates still has a huge fan base, including me, who will always love her for making the movie Drop Dead Fred. In this film more than any other we get to see her acting chops, and they’re quite impressive. Cates manages a charming, regal, innocence in this film and gives a mesmerizing and memorable performance as the Princess. The film is also filled with notable British actors, and strangely Jerry Hall makes an appearance, I’m not sure why, but she wears a pretty costume.

The art direction and cinematography in Princess Caraboo are beautifully done, especially during the Royal Ball sequence (I’m such a sucker for a good ball sequence) which features some really gorgeous and interesting sets and costumes. The mix of the early 19th century Austen-era style with the Asian influences makes for some gorgeous visuals.

This film is about imagination, and that’s not to say whether Caraboo is or isn’t a “real” princess, it’s about what other people believe, and what we choose to believe. Princess Caraboo leaves you wondering what makes a person who they are. In My Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle tells us that “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated” and Princess Caraboo presents us with the same dismaying reality that often a person’s worth is based on what they’re born with, rather than who they are as a person.

The story in the film is surprisingly true to the real adventure of Princess Caraboo, although as with all historical fiction, the film makes many suppositions and takes ample liberties. The real Princess Caraboo was quite a fascinating character with a remarkable story, and she is definitely worth looking up, just make sure you watch the film before you investigate her tale, because part of the pleasure of this film is not knowing the truth up until the end.

Whether she is or isn’t doesn’t matter as much as the way others react to Caraboo when they believe her to be princess or fraud. At nothing more than the mere suggestion of noble blood, disgust is replaced by awe in an instant. Watching the characters flicker between belief and doubt makes you ponder the notions of how we value one another. What makes a princess any different from a beggar? Is it who she is as a woman, or is it the way we perceive her that makes her who she is? One thing I know for sure is if you are in possession of a vivid imagination, you’re luckier than most, and if you can open up the minds of those around you and draw them in to the world you’ve created, well then anything is truly possible.

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Beauty in the Movies: Mermaids

Looking back at images of beauty that have made a great impression on me throughout my life, I’ve noticed that there are films which have left a permanent mark on what appeared as beautiful to me, both in ways that I could relate to, and also in admiration of the beauty of others. As Netflix likes to tell me, many of my favorite films feature “strong female leads”, which is true. Unfortunately, they make very few movies that fall in to that realm. In fact there is this thing called the-Bechdel-test which is a way of gauging the prevalence of female representation in movies. It was created by a very smart woman named Allison Bechdel. You can read all about it here, but the basis of the test involves asking these three questions about any movie:

1. Are there two or more women in it who have names?

2. Do the two women ever talk to each other?

3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

When you first read these questions you think, “God that’s silly, of course tons of movies must answer all three of those questions positively” and then you stop and think for a minute and go “wait, oh my god, that sucks, why are there no movies for women that don’t revolve around men or shopping? AHHH” and then you get really upset until you go watch Mermaids and Cher sings and cheers you up, and you remember that there are some good movies for us females.

We should promote and encourage more films that explore all aspects of female existence to be made. Because really, as much as relationships are a part of life, there are so many more topics to cover, and women really seem to just get pigeonholed into these love-sick shopaholics, and we are all so much more than that aren’t we?

So anyway, my point is, every week (on Friday because it’s movie night, duh!) I am going to post about one of these great movies that actually show the diversity of women, and also gives us inspiring images of beauty both in and out. So send me your suggestions too! I’ll make fun collages, it will be great!


Now let me get to Mermaids, this movie had a profound effect on my life when I was 7, I wanted to be Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci all at once. I loved this movie so much, and still do, that I’d like to share a little anecdote.

Here is a picture of my sister and I in matching outfits (my mother claims this only happened a few times, but I think it happened more) you can see by my sister’s dress that the skirt is supposed to be loose and A-line. Well, I wanted to be just like Cher, so in this big family photo, I decided to knot my skirt in the back so it would be tight like Cher’s right before my dad snapped the photo. I was a pretty bad ass kid. Nobody even noticed, but I was happy, and I still get a kick out of looking at it.

Mermaids centers around the story of Rachel Flax, a single mom who moves to a small Massachusetts town with her two daughters (Ryder and Ricci) in 1963. She cuts sandwiches into fun shapes with cookie cutters, wears fabulous outfits, and actually has a realistic relationship with her kids. Winona Ryder’s character, Charlotte, falls for the hunky groundskeeper (Jake from Sixteen Candles) at the nearby convent, and struggles with questions of religion, sex, and abandonment by her father. The movie also covers Kennedy’s assassination, an adorable Christina Ricci as a swimming champion, Bob Hoskins making an amazing night-light, and so much more.  There is a great soundtrack too, my favorite camp counselor used to have us sing The Shoop Shoop Song (Does he love Me?) on the bus, it was the best summer.

So if you’ve never seen Mermaids (or even if you have) I highly recommend checking it out, and if you find yourself as inspired by Cher’s sexy, fun, 60’s looks in the film as I was, here is a little shopping guide to help you get the look:

Puckered Sleeve Dot Cardigan
$24 – canada.forever21.com
More cardigans »

Cornelli Cardi
30 GBP – missselfridge.com
More Miss Selfridge cardigans »

Top
$650 – marni.com
More Marni tops »

 

darla bracelet
25 GBP – coast-stores.com
More bracelets »

Black False Lashes
$6 – mydivascloset.com


Have a great weekend everyone!

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